Surfing the Waves of Grief: The Mourning Process Without a Road Map

Published on: 20 Jan 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
stages of grief illustration

On my wedding day, I woke up at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I crept out of bed while my fiancé David slumbered on, tiptoeing through the air conditioned hotel suite that had been offered to us as a free upgrade because the city was empty on July 4th. I stepped out onto the terrace with an impossibly gorgeous view of the Empire State Building. The darkened city had just a few lights winking at me like fireflies. It was warm, musky, and humid.

I was feeling jumpy about the day ahead, but not for any of the usual bridal reasons.

No, I was nervous because I didn’t want to fall apart with sadness over my dad’s recent death. He had died six weeks earlier, and since there had been no funeral, our wedding was to be the first time that the whole family would see one another. We would be commemorating him and allowing his absence to be felt as a real loss. 

Yet all I wanted, with all of my joy over marrying my loving future husband, was to keep it together. I willed myself to hang on and not devolve into a sobbing mess. No matter what happened.

We had been anticipating my dad’s death for the last few months, even before his Stage 4 Kidney Cancer took a turn. But he’d been battling it for four exhausting years. After a week of barely conscious hospice care at Smilow Cancer Center in New Haven — where I read to him from Lord of the Rings and played him his favorite Eric Clapton and Beatles songs — his final departure had felt like a relief.

Seeking Help in Therapy

The day my father died, I looked up a therapist on Psychology Today’s online listings, and reached out to schedule an appointment. That night, I said goodbye to my stepmom and returned to NYC to collect my students’ final papers. The next day, I met with students in final conferences, turned back graded work, chatted and exchanged pleasantries, and spent the next 18 hours grading. 

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The following morning, I submitted the graded finals to the English Department that required hard copies, and attended two meetings. I took the 2pm train back up to Connecticut, where I would stay with my stepmom for another week. The day after that, I submitted my students’ final course grades online. And, with that, my teaching year was over.

Now, I could tackle my grief, just like any other item on my to-do list.  

At my first therapy appointment, I expressed my desire to “speed through grief.” I explained, “I want to do it right — go at it 150%, max out my grief — so I can get it over with and move on with my life.”

My therapist laughed. “It may never be over,” she said.

My face fell. “What do you mean?” This was not what I was hoping to hear.

“You may feel grief about your father for the rest of your life.”

Earlier in life, I had benefited from years of therapy as a teenager and young adult, and had seen a therapist briefly after my dad’s cancer diagnosis in 2015. Once, I said something about needing to repair my relationship with my father before he died. 

“That’s not necessarily up to you,” my short-term therapist had said. “You might not get closer. You may never get exactly what you want from your father before he dies.” Her words had floored me, but also helped me figure out what I wanted from my relationship with him.

After his diagnosis, I saw a lot more of my father. Through more than three years of frequent visits with him and my stepmom in Connecticut, where I made him French Toast when he wasn’t feeling too nauseous from the chemo, accompanied him to doctor’s appointments, and took him to the beach and the marijuana dispensary, we forged a better connection. We watched old movies, Jeopardy!, and MASH reruns. For his birthday in August of 2017, I brought up eclipse glasses and we watched the partial solar eclipse from the beach in Connecticut. By the very end of my father’s life, I felt that nothing important was left unsaid.

Yet even with all of this preparation for his death, the grief still shocked me.

I could no longer remember anything I was supposed to do. I couldn’t get excited about anything I used to like. I didn’t want any of my usual comfort foods, instead gravitating toward bowls of plain cottage cheese. While I was supposed to be working on independent summer projects, preparing to teach a summer class, writing freelance articles, and finishing preparations for my wedding, the days felt long, languorous, and full of inertia.

All I wanted to do was play a virtual farming video game that my fiancé David had introduced me too — tilling the earthen squares and watering my imaginary tomatoes and cauliflower. With their moos of pleasure, milking my imaginary cows was especially satisfying. The best thing about this pastoral world: even if I couldn’t handle taking care of my imaginary cows and imaginary vegetables, no one cared. Even the stakes were imaginary.

I explained my fears about the wedding to a dear friend and member of the bridal party. “I’m just afraid that I’ll fall apart, because my emotions are so unpredictable. Before this, I could predict whether I’d be able to get something done. Or if I were in a funk, I could guess when I would be feeling okay again.”

“You can predict your emotions?” she asked incredulously. “That’s amazing.”

I guess I’m a fairly predictable person, most of the time, I thought to myself. My emotions generally felt like weather patterns that I could see coming — usually I could ride them out and brace for storms. I wondered if my experience of grief was like someone else’s experience of more erratic mood fluctuations.

At the wedding, even with my friends poised at the ready to swoop in and save me if I fell apart, I was fine. That night as my head hit the pillow, I knew I had nothing to fear. The day had been magical, and I had held onto myself when it mattered most. Now I could relax.

Understanding the Stages of Grief 

I decided I wanted to do some meaningful research to try to understand my own grieving process. A grieving person’s “un-guide to grief,” if you will. This was mostly because googling “What do I do about all this grief?” turned up spectacularly unsatisfying results. 

First, I found the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — to be woefully inadequate for describing my rollercoastering moods through feelings of despair, days of inaction, waves of numbness, and the eventual beginning of a return to functionality. Yes, I no longer woke up every morning at 4am sharp after only a few hours of sleep. But no, I didn’t feel “better.” Yet.

I then connected with Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State College Dr. Michele Forte, who is a grief counselor and frequently teaches college courses on grief and grieving. I told her I was trying to get a better understanding of my grieving process. “We all share in experiencing grief,” Dr. Forte said. “Yet it’s as unique as the individual. Grief binds all of us. That’s what makes it terrifying, and that’s what makes it beautiful.” She explained that “Grief is like trauma in the brain. The newest research shows that grief lights up regions of the brain differently than in regular functioning. It leaves a lasting biological imprint.” 

She also contextualized the origins of grief-stage theory, informing me that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief were originally developed in 1969 to describe how terminally ill patients understood their own impending mortality. Since then, “stage theory” has been widely applied to describe how survivors cope with the loss of a loved one. 

However, the danger of defining grief in terms of stages is that people (myself included) can mistakenly believe that the stages exist in a linear path, like a set of video game levels. Done with denial, check! Now, onward to anger, and then bargaining. Or we imagine that while the stages occur differently for each of us — in a different sequence or increments of time — once you’re done bargaining, you never have to bargain again. Right? Wrong!

Finding meaning

In a New Yorker article called “Good Grief,” Meghan O’Rourke traces the trajectory from Kubler-Ross’s creation of “stage theory” to the cultural compartmentalization of grief, a maddeningly American means of sterilizing the grieving process. 

O’Rourke writes, “Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable.” O’Rourke adds that “at the end of her life, Kübler-Ross herself recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone…she insisted that the stages were ‘never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.’ If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because the messiness of grief is what makes us uncomfortable.”

Indeed, the five stages of grief are about to welcome a new sibling: “meaning.” David Kessler published an argument for and explanation of this new “sixth stage” in his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler was Kubler-Ross’s co-author of On Grief and Grieving, and he argues that finding meaning is the final step of mourning that helps us make sense of the other emotions that grief entails.

In his article in the Irish Times, Kessler says that, “I thought I knew everything about grief, until my 21-year-old son died.” He explains that it was the loss of his son that complicated his understanding of the grieving process. He writes, “Through meaning, we can go beyond that pain. Loss can wound and…hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward. Meaning helps us make sense of grief.”

Yet is “meaning” just another checkbox of grieving to achieve? Once we figure out what a loved one’s death “means,” then can we move on? And what does moving on even mean?

Is There a Difference Between Sudden and Anticipatory Grief?

On September 15, four months after my dad died, I was writing in my neighborhood coffee shop on a Sunday morning. Suddenly, my husband David appeared, breathless and panicked.

“I need you to come home right now.” The words tumbled out of his mouth.

I shut my laptop. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“Jenn died last night.” His eyes were full of tears.

“Your cousin?” I was in disbelief. 

David’s cousin was younger than us, a healthy and happy middle school art teacher in her early 30s. She and her husband had celebrated with us at our wedding just two months before. We learned that morning that she had been killed instantly in a car accident.

David and I walked home together quietly, arm in arm, tears rolling down our cheeks as the September sun bathed us in its warmth.

Later, I asked Dr. Forte about the difference between sudden and anticipated grief. “Unlike with my dad, no one could have imagined this happening.”

She replied, “In both instances, the same processes happen. The initial response might be different, but the tasks are all still going to be there, as well as ‘mediators of grief.’”

According to William Worden, whose Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy expanded upon grief-stage theory, there are four tasks of mourning that pick up where the “five stages” leave off:

  • To accept the reality of the loss
  • To process the pain of grief
  • To adjust to a world without the deceased
  • To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.

To that end, Worden also introduces seven “mediators of grief,” which include: 

  1. Who the person died was
  2. The Nature of the Attachment
  3. How the person died
  4. Historical antecedents
  5. Personality variables
  6. Social variables
  7. Concurrent stresses

Dr. Forte also introduced me to the work of Dr. George Bonanno, who discovered the existence of “resilience” during grief recovery. Contrary to the assumption in grief stage theory that everyone goes through similar manifestations of grief, Dr. Bonanno discovered instead that there is “tremendous variability in how people react to loss.” He explains that resilient grievers “are able to put the pain aside when they need to and they continue to meet the demands of their life…They accept the loss, readjust their sense of what is, and move on.”

So how can we cultivate traits that make us more resilient? In an interview published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Bonanno identifies traits affecting resilience like “self-enhancement,” which is helpful for reframing a difficult situation in positive terms, or seeing opportunities for growth, and “self-confidence in one’s ability to cope.” So perhaps, believing that we can handle the experience of grief is a necessary ingredient in developing resilience. 

The Process of Moving Forward

In the final days of September, David and I flew to California for Jenn’s funeral. David has an enormous family, and it seemed there was 100% attendance. Everyone gathered to celebrate his cousin’s life and support her family. The chapel was packed, and her coworkers and students spilled out onto the sunny sidewalk. She had always loved wearing flowers in her hair, and so her art students had crafted flowers of all colors out of fabric and affixed them to clips so we could all wear a flower in her honor.

During the ceremony, a number of Jenn’s family, friends, and colleagues were invited to share their memories. My husband David told the group how much he respected and admired Jenn, saying, “I never even realized before how much I loved her. She was such a light.”

It was an incredibly sad day; however, David and I agreed that we were so grateful to be there. Even though I hadn’t grown up with his sisters or cousins, I felt that I had joined David’s family, bonded not by blood but instead by the shared ritual of mourning.

A month after we returned home, we slowly started to feel normal again. Missing our dearly departed family members has become a regular part of daily life, rather than an all-encompassing experience. For me, feeling the sense of community when sharing the pain of grief — both at our wedding and at Jenn’s funeral — were two moments when I felt that the memories of our loved ones enhanced my life, rather than detracting from it. 

As time goes on, I worry less and less about a wave of sadness rising up and overwhelming me, taking me by surprise, embarrassing me, or dampening other moments in my life. Eventually, the tide of my emotions will calm, and I’ll be able to predict the weather patterns again.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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